Time Is On Their Side

Books are the way of the future. That might seem like a strange, shortsighted, backward, ignorant, or even downright idiotic thing to say, but books?real, physical bundles of paper, ink, glue, and cloth, have been around a long time, and I have good reasons for believing they’re going to stay around for a long time.

Several recent attempts have been made to replace books with something newer, hipper, and more user-friendly than the old traditional paper book. The e-book goes back at least as far as 1996 when CD-ROMs were supposed to be the wave of the future. Specialized handheld e-book devices like the SoftBook were available as early as 1999, although the SoftBook is no longer produced after the company was purchased in 2000. Its $599.00 price tag may have been part of its problem, although 5-hour battery life probably didn’t help either. Now, if you can find a supplier, you can buy the REB 1200 for just $700.00, and get up to ten hours of reading time before you have to recharge the battery. I know it seems like I’m taking cheap shots at electronic publishing by bringing out its most obvious failures, but they demonstrate an important point: electronic devices go out of date very quickly. Some turn into expensive paperweights within less than a year. Obviously downloading e-books to devices like the iPod, Blackberry, or other media players and PDAs is the future for electronic books just as it is for music, photographs, and videos. But do we really want to start throwing out all our old books and clearing library shelves? Books have their disadvantages: they’re susceptible to fire, water damage, insect infestation, mold, and, perhaps worst of all, time. Beginning in the mid-1800’s publishers started using acidic paper that’s been self-destructing for decades. Paper doesn’t necessarily have to turn yellow and crumble, but it will if it’s acidic paper, and even if it’s stored in ideal conditions. Ironically books published in 1800 have a longer shelf-life than books published in 1900. While publishers have been using alkaline paper (which is more environmentally friendly and lasts longer) since the mid-1980’s the changeover hasn’t been universal, and even if it were that’s approximately one-hundred and forty years of books that are crumbling away. And yet the problems faced by traditional books are minor compared to the problems of e-books, no matter where they’re stored. Hand-held devices, servers, hard drives, floppy disks, and all forms of electronic storage are susceptible to fire, water damage, insect infestation, mold, and, of course, time. Time is an even bigger factor as both hardware and software become obsolete. A document saved in the Windows 95 version of Microsoft Word is unreadable in the Windows XP version, and if you try to open it with any other text program you’ll get gibberish. In my lifetime music and audio recording have gone from vinyl LPs and reel-to-reel machines to 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s and other digital formats. Each time there’s a new format we have to invest in new players, and occasionally let go of old favorites, or keep the clunky old machine. Electronic books can also be easily controlled and manipulated by outside sources, especially in an age when computers are interconnected. Those who don’t like what a e-book says can pull the plug, drain the battery, smash the screen, and they can also delete, corrupt, or manipulate the file. An e-book can move easily from one computer to another, which is a strength and a weakness. E-books have to be used in conjunction with, not as a replacement for, traditional books because they’re fine in the short-term but they’re unreliable for long-term storage. My point here is that, when it comes to books especially, we have to keep an eye toward the future.

At this point I’ve lost most of the tech-savvy, the programmers, the technophiles, and others who think I’m strange, shortsighted, backward, ignorant, or even downright idiotic, that I’m some kind of neo-Luddite who just hates technology. In fact I love technology. The irony of writing this in a blog isn’t lost on me. I’m all for electronic publishing. I’m not in favor of electronic publishing in spite of the problems associated with it; I’m in favor of it because of the problems with traditional books. The Internet revolution has been compared to the Gutenberg revolution, when books, freed from the old, time and labor intensive process of hand-copying, could be reproduced quickly, easily, and cheaply, and distributed widely. As long ago as 1998 (well, time is relative) I heard it suggested that the Internet would mean the end of libraries having to store and preserve books. Let’s not leap before we look, though. The e-book has some incredible advantages: it can be read anywhere by anyone with access to a computer, it can be shared or copied. Fragile manuscripts, which are normally off limits to anyone except really dedicated scholars because they have to be kept in closely controlled environments, can be scanned and made widely available. Scholarly periodicals are being loaded into gigantic collections, both by publishers and by new companies. These collections are called aggregators, and the advantage of the aggregator is that, while traditionally patrons could only look through a single periodical at a time, now they can search thousands, limiting their searches in numerous ways to help them find the information they need. The fact that scholars don’t always know what they’re looking for isn’t a problem, because electronic searching, like traditional searching, can still lead to unexpected sources. Ironically when I was researching this I found information about e-books in a bound book called From Revolution to Revolution: Perspectives on Publishing & Bookselling 1501-2001 by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), and I found information about acidic and alkaline paper in an electronic database created and maintained by the company Proquest. In spite of the problems associated with Google’s book scanning program, which include both copyright problems and unresolved issues about the reliability of their searches, I like the idea in principle. Scanning books and making them searchable, especially for academic research, is a really, really good idea. When a university library has an e-book every student can read it without having to worry about someone just ahead of them checking it out first.

The other argument in favor of e-books is that it’s what the kids want. Because young people are growing up in a world of technology, so the argument goes, they’re not willing to use those old-fashioned books. And I have to ask, what parents, what adults, believe kids should get whatever they want? The advantages of e-books shouldn’t eclipse the advantage of traditional books. And those of us who are a little older, who left college behind and have been in the real world for a few years now, have seen the very thing I keep coming back to: the rapid obsolescence of technological devices.

E-books are not a substite for traditional books, but a supplement. I’m not holding on to some romantic notion of books as sacred objects, but I also believe we should be realistic about technology’s pitfalls as well as its potential. The book, or the scroll, or even the stone tablet is a data storage system whose only power source is the reader, that’s impervious to viruses, and that makes tampering obvious. It doesn’t get any more high tech than that.